Thursday, October 4, 2012

Monster Mush: HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA


You might not know it based only on the evidence of Hotel Transylvania, but Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the best animators of his generation. People around my age, especially, will recognize his powerful influence over his field if I mention the titles Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack, three popular and influential animated series he directed for Cartoon Network in the 90s and early 00s. Characterized by fast, expressive movements and crisp, clean, caricatured figures moving through bold, colorful landscapes, these 2D, largely hand-drawn, shows play like they spring fully formed from a consistent, energetic vision.

But now, to the film at hand: Tartakovsky’s feature film debut. It’s a three-dimensional computer animated comedy about Dracula not wanting his daughter Mavis to leave the monster hotel he built to keep her away from dangerous humans. It’s clear that something went wrong during the making of Hotel Transylvania. You can tell by the gorgeous watercolor concept art that serves as a backdrop for the end credits. There’s certainly nothing that entrancingly good-looking in the film itself, a bland overly-familiar CGI animation effort that feels colorful and plastic in predictable patterns, where wacky character design looks like nothing more than a basket of McDonald’s toys. I like how broadly caricatured famous monsters like the mummy and Frankenstein look here, but they’re really only good for a sight gag or two before growing boring. Gone are Tartakovsky’s instantly recognizable drawings, subsumed in a cookie-cutter computer environment, his bold expressive 2D style ironically flattened out and homogenized in 3D.

The more-or-less one-joke plot (attributed to five writers) is as follows. A human wanders into Hotel Transylvania (a huge Scooby-Doo­-style castle) and catches the eye of Mavis, so Dracula tries in vain to keep the human away from the castle in order to protect his daughter from falling in love and to maintain his business model, which is built upon assuring the guests, monsters all, that humans are A.) universally dangerous and B.) never to be found on the grounds. The plot has thinning issues, growing less complicated as it goes along, settling far too easily into predictable grooves of narrative along paths that have been well trod. Stranger still are the moments when it eschews predictability to ill effect. Why not play around with the received pop-culture assumptions about these famous monsters? Why not go out on a rousing cover of “The Monster Mash?”

Voices heard here are grating, frenzied explosions of mismatched celebrity voices. As Dracula, Adam Sandler commits to one of his infamous grating accents, this time around a broad, sloppy Bela Lugosi vant-to-suck-your-blud style of loud mumbling. On the other end of the spectrum is Selena Gomez as daughter Mavis, who seems to have perhaps literally phoned in her lines in her normal speaking voice. The human who gets mixed up in door-slamming, pay-no-attention-to-the-guy-who’s-clearly-not-a-monster shenanigans is Andy Samberg who does a broad SoCal drawl. Elsewhere, cartoony monsters can be heard speaking like Steve Buscemi, CeeLo, Kevin James, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, David Spade, and Jon Lovitz. Weird, huh? Distracting too.

Hotel Transylvania is a movie both manic and sleepy, racing through turbocharged sub-Looney Tunes concepts so quickly and constantly that none of the gags have time to land, assuming they ever could have done so. I don’t know. When I see Frankenstein detach his legs and walk them behind the mummy to unleash a stinky blast of flatulence that is then sucked up by a witch with a bellows who then proceeds to use it to stoke a fire, I’m just not amused. Maybe that means I wasn’t on the right wavelength for this picture, but I tried. I really did. I like fast and silly, but this movie’s so much of both that it skips off the tracks and lands with a disappointing thud on the same old tracks we’ve been down hundreds of times before. Gee, parents and kids should better understand each other. People should not be hated for being different. It’s all wacky jokes, pleasant enough, but not too funny, in service of all the usual morals. That’s fine as far as that goes, but if you don’t have anything new to say, at least you could say it in an entertaining way.

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